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High school coach says sense of emptiness is felt all around

St. Mary's College athletic head, and senior girls basketball coach Dave Zagordo feels for graduating students and Grade 9s as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of fall sports at the high school level

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in mid-September and Dave Zagordo is typically thinking of ways to make his St. Mary’s Knights senior girls basketball team better.

Instead, there is no sound of bouncing basketballs, loud whistles or screeching running shoes and the mere reality of that has Zagordo and many of his players in a deep funk.

When you have coached or played the sport for nearly your entire life, having it no longer around leaves an emptiness that is both palpable and painful, but for Zagordo, the biggest disappointment is seeing the dejection in the kids.

“I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’ve been coaching for close to 22 years now so you get into a year when a pandemic hits and all of the sudden there’s nothing happening so it’s really different and weird, especially after school because that’s when we’re normally practising,” said Zagordo, who is the athletic head at St. Mary’s College. “I feel sorry for the graduates. You want to make your Grade 12 year memorable and finish all the sports you’ve played since Grade 9 and now they may not get that opportunity.”

While so much depends on whether or not there’s a second wave of COVID-19, Zagordo is holding out hope that maybe, just maybe the local school boards will open athletics back up. He said OFSAA and NOSSA have already been cancelled for the year, but that doesn’t mean the local boards can’t have a season, depending on the direction the pandemic heads.

But he knows that in order for football, cross county running or girls basketball to have a season, that decision would have to be made prior to Nov. 1 as that’s when wrestling, hockey, boys basketball and girls volleyball normally kick off.

For Zagordo, who grew up playing sports and who was a stellar athlete during his high school days, it hurts him to also see so many Grade 9 students enter high school without the prospect of playing on a school team in their first year.

“I honestly feel bad for the Grade 9s as well,” he said. “They’re coming from elementary to high school so it’s a new beginning and an opportunity for them to play a team sport right away. Everyone also looks forward to the John Croshuk Classic (East-West high school football game), so it’s weird for the kids to not have a chance to experience that.”

He said he sees it in their faces and feels the disappointment in their voices whenever he does have an opportunity to stop and chat with them in the hallways or classroom.

“They’re so disappointed,” he said. “I’ve run into a few of them in the hallways and they said they wish they were playing football or they wish they were playing basketball and how exciting high school sports is. The competition is healthy and some of these kids are missing that.

“I just tell them to be patient, the door is not entirely closed and hopefully something will open up next month, but the main thing is just keeping everyone safe.”

Zagordo said the sentiments he’s feeling are similar to those that other volunteer coaches feel. There is a lot of preparation that goes into coaching high school sports, but the thing that’s really missing is the on court battles and rivalries between schools.

“I ran into (Superior Heights girls basketball coach) Kyle Dugas the other day and were just kind of reminiscing about what kind of season we would have had and it looked like it was going to be a very competitive league, especially in the senior loop” Zagordo said. “We were returning a good core of players at St. Mary’s and we were hoping to be very competitive this year with Superior Heights and Korah is always good and White Pines was an improving team.”

For Zagordo and the high school athletic community, it’s a bit of an eerie feeling right now, but he’s hoping COVID numbers remain down in Sault Ste. Marie and that could be just what the doctor ordered to save the high school athletic season locally.